When The Past Is Personal

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From 1986 until 1993, in the busy centre of the German town of Harburg, there stood a steel column. Artists Esther and Jochen Gertz designed this monument against fascism, war and violence with a soft, lead-covered surface and invited citizens and visitors to add their signature to its surface. After a metre and a half of the column was entirely filled up with anti- (and pro-) fascist sentiment, it was lowered into the ground.

This controversial public art project was one of many cultural artefacts generated by a society that has fostered remembrance of its Nazi past. The film The Reader, based on Bernhard Schlink’s 1995 novel of the same name, is another such artefact. Schlink now has a new book out: a published collection of six public lectures entitled Guilt about the Past.

Schlink was born in 1944. For his generation, he explains in the book, "dealing with the past became part of our self-perception and self-expression". The student movement of the late 1960s and early 70s insisted on a public discussion about the Holocaust "against great resistance". This insistence demanded moral courage; in turn the near total moral failure of Schlink’s parents’ generation was scrutinised.

For this was a discussion that probed a whole society’s relationship to the horrors of the camps: "Entanglement in the past arises not only through having been a perpetrator, an accessory, inciter or supporter. Common knowledge, observing and turning away … not expelling, prosecuting, and punishing the perpetrators afterward, but seeing them instead tolerated or even respected — these all contribute."

Reflecting on his generation’s efforts, Schlink considers some undesirable effects. For example, he expresses some discomfort with the emphasis on moral courage: that of his generation — a sometimes self-serving and somewhat abstract preoccupation — and that of his parents’ generation, which resulted in a focus on individual acts and did not adequately consider the role of societal and state institutions. Also, he identifies a kind of ennui about the past exhibited by German schoolchildren today. This Schlink attributes to the "deadening frequency" with which they are confronted with lessons about, and media representations of, the Jewish Holocaust.

In Guilt about the Past Schlink introduces a word that has no English equivalent: vergangenheitsbewältigung, which roughly translates as "coming to terms with the past", or perhaps even "mastering the past". This word reveals a longing for something that Schlink concedes is impossible. It implies a state of order in which remembrance of the past no longer burdens the present. Schlink is a legal scholar and the law seems to offer him this sense of stability, a matter mastered, decided upon and finalised in judgement. Yet the past in the lived social present is not as easily settled.

Writing in the Australian Literary Review historian Inga Clendinnen took issue with what she called an "eerie erasure of history" that threads its way through Schlink’s lectures. "Eerie" perhaps because the desire to be free from the past is evident in Schlink’s writing as an element of his commitment to remember: it is not a denied or fully repressed desire, but it certainly has a haunting quality. For Schlink, relieving oneself of "guilt about the past", and dwelling on one’s complicity in it, are complementary — rather than contradictory — undertakings. Schlink considers the paradox that the first be hoped for as the just reward of the second; "whoever remembers wants the right to forget".

Clendinnen, however, sees it this way: "Schlink thinks too much dwelling on the past, too much inquiry, is disruptive. … Schlink wants history erased. I see history … as humanity’s best, indeed only way forward."

I respect Clendinnen’s reservations and her essay is well worth reading, but I don’t think Schlink wants history "erased" so much as integrated — into a narrative about the German nation and the German self that can be experienced as "undamaged" in the present.

Guilt about the Past‘s publication was timed to coincide with The Reader‘s run at the box office. Both the novel and the film have been criticised on predictable grounds: that they invite empathy with, even sympathy for, the perpetrators of monstrous crimes. But the perpetrators of the Jewish Holocaust were humans — ordinary humans such as the pathetic, unimaginative and ultimately evil bureaucrat Adolph Eichmann. To "humanise" them is a necessary part of trying to understand them.

The Reader is about Michael Berg’s passionate, life-defining love for Hanna Schmitz, a former SS guard (a fact not known to him until after their affair ended). For Schlink’s generation it was the people they loved, often intimately — parents, grandparents — that they also felt compelled to condemn.

Klaus Neumann, unimpressed with both the literary and film versions of The Reader, has interesting things to say about their success. Neumann thinks audiences are titillated by the idea of a Germany whose "monstrousness is veiled", a Germany within which this kind of work could be considered transgressive and risqué. This is simply not the case, as Guilt about the Past attests.

Neumann also argues that while it is appropriate that German audiences engage seriously with the life of a person such as Hanna Schmitz rather than that of Anne Frank, neither Schlink nor the filmmakers bring us close to understanding Schmitz.

To return to that complicated effort at engaging and remembering that I opened with: its artists call Harburg’s anti-fascist memorial a "dialogue with repression". Their invitation reads as follows: "We invite citizens and visitors to add their names here to ours. In doing so, we commit ourselves to remain vigilant. As more and more names cover this … column, it will gradually be lowered into the ground."

The column collected the names of individuals who each enacted a small, personal ritual of remembrance. It also bore the scribbles and messages of many Holocaust deniers and fascist sympathisers. These densely tangled names, acts and words speak to the urgency to take the past personally. Yet, inevitably too, the past recedes and its shape, form and effects become less tangible, less immediately definite.

The column has long been buried. Crucially, a section of it will always remain visible from a pedestrian underpass.

The artists’ invitation continued: "One day [the column]will have disappeared completely and the site of the Harburg monument against fascism will be empty. In the end, it is only we ourselves who can rise up against injustice."

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